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OKLAHOMA CITY –
There was more at stake for the Thunder than the Spurs in Sunday’s Game 4 of a Western Conference semifinals playoff series but that didn’t make Oklahoma City’s 111-97 win any easier for the Spurs to take.
They could accept that Kevin Durant, the Thunder’s four-time NBA scoring champion, is capable of making the tough shots required to score 17 of his game-high 41 points in a fourth quarter surge that broke open a close game and left the best-of-seven series tied, at two games apiece.
It was harder to acknowledge the Thunder’s crunch time advantage in toughness and tenacity, a huge factor in the five offensive rebounds and eight second-chance points that figured prominently in a fourth period in which they outscored the Spurs, 34-16.
It was the highest-scoring quarter by a Spurs opponent in this season’s playoff run.
“They out-toughed us,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “They battered us on the boards. At the same time, they had some other players that joined in and made shots. Those guys making shots, the great job they did on the boards, out-toughing us, and Durant having a great night got them a game.”
The Thunder’s toughness was a measure of the desperation with which they played a game that had implications aplenty. They already had given back home court advantage by losing Game 3 on Friday night. They knew a second loss on their home floor would give the Spurs a chance to close out the best-of-seven series in Game 5 on their AT&T Center home court on Tuesday night.
As if the thought of a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series weren’t enough extra motivation for Oklahoma City, there was also the elephant in the arena: Another loss had the potential to make the game the last that Durant would play at Chesapeake Energy Arena in a Thunder uniform.
Durant will be a free agent this summer and the Spurs are among the many elite teams that will try to lure him away from Oklahoma. There is a widely held belief that a short Thunder playoff run could be a big factor for Durant when he considers his NBA future in July.
What better way for the Spurs to enhance a potential recruiting pitch than by being the team to eliminate the Thunder?
But Sunday’s result made eliminating the Thunder much more difficult and may have made it less likely Durant will want to leave. He started out missing six of the eight shots he took in the first quarter, the Spurs taking advantage to lead by as many as 11 points in the first half. But Thunder center Steven Adams scored 12 first-half points – matching Durant — and reserve swing man Dion Waiters scored 10 in the first half to keep the Thunder close.
Durant appreciated the support, and proved it by making 10-of-13 shots and scoring 29 points in the second half.
“My teammates did a good job sticking with me, finding me and getting me some easy baskets, setting screens for me,” Durant said. “After they do all that it’s up to me to finish the shot and just stick to the fundamentals I’ve been practicing since I was a kid.”
The Spurs were lacking some of the fundamentals that characterized their 67-15 regular season. They missed 10-of-12 3-point shots in the game and had a season low 12 assists. But were more concerned about the defensive mistakes they made in in the critical fourth quarter.
“I think down the stretch we made too many mistakes,” Popovich said. “Just not remembering who we were guarding and how we wanted to play.”
It was uncharacteristic of a team that completed the regular season having played the stingiest defense of any NBA team of the past 10 years.
“The reason we lost tonight was because our defense wasn’t as good as the past games,” said Boris Diaw, who had his best game offensive game of the series, with 11 points in 21 minutes. “Definitely when a team is scoring more than 100 points, it’s going to be hard for us to win. We’ve been relying on our defense for all regular season. So it should be the same in the playoffs. That’s the No. 1 emphasis that we’re going have for the next game.”
The season low assists reflected the Spurs’ reliance on post play and isolations in Sunday’s game.
“We are not playing our regular season type of games,” said veteran guard Manu Ginobili. “We are going to the post, not every time, but often. It was working out great but today we just didn’t score enough.
“Again, we were up six, eight for part of the game. They got a couple big offensive rebounds, made a few threes in that stretch and got that lead we couldn’t overcome. But I think we’re doing OK. We just let each other down in the stretch.”
Ginobili acknowledged he spent some time after the game commiserating with teammate Tim Duncan. The 40-year-old future Hall of Famer was held scoreless in a playoff game for the first time in his 19 seasons with the Spurs but Ginobili expects a bounce-back game from the team captain.
“We are a team and we try to help each other,” Ginobili said. “It’s a tough series for him but he’s a grown-up man. He knows how to get back up. He’s going to go, take a million shots and feel better about himself. I don’t worry about him.”
The Spurs now have to worry that Durant will come to AT&T Center for Tuesday’s Game 5 – tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. – with the swagger of a confident former MVP.
Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.